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Nonviolent, largest protest demands Park resign

Nearly 1.5 million people took to the streets of central Seoul on Saturday to demand President Park Geun-hye step down over the spiraling influence-peddling and corruption scandal.

Protestors waved candles, sang songs, chanted slogans and flocked to the locations nearest to the presidential office to denounce Park in the largest rally in decades, despite the cold weather.

Rally organizers said that 1.9 million people gathered for the protest nationwide, with 1.5 million in Seoul. This is the fifth week of major anti-Park protests since the scandal surfaced in late October. It appears to be the largest in scale since the pro-democracy protests in the 1980s.

The police put the turnout number in Seoul at 270,000.
Protesters hold a candlelight rally calling for President Park Geun-hye's resignation at Ghwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)
Protesters hold a candlelight rally calling for President Park Geun-hye's resignation at Ghwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)
As in previous rallies, most of the participants were unaffiliated citizens who came with their family and friends.

Many of them wore thick winter jackets and rain coats to keep warm, as Saturday saw the first snow fall of the season. 

Participants sit in front of the makeshift stage at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul ahead of the main event to begin in the evening during anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Participants sit in front of the makeshift stage at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul ahead of the main event to begin in the evening during anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“It is difficult to take care of my children on the street during the rally, especially because it’s snowing and cold, but it is peaceful, so it’s OK,” Jung Young-hoon, a 36-year-old father of two, told The Korea Herald. “I had to come to show my kids that this is democracy. My children are young, but it is them who will lead the future of this country.”

Jung Young-hoon and his family in front of Sejong Art Center in central Seoul during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Jung Young-hoon and his family in front of Sejong Art Center in central Seoul during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“I am afraid nothing will change despite the rallies, but I will still come to contribute even a little to making a change,” he said. 

Cheerful songs calling for Park’s ouster blared from loudspeakers. Street vendors sold candles, mats, raincoats and heat packs. There were also stalls selling hot snacks such as chicken skewers, sausages and fish cakes. 

 
Protestors march towards the presidential office during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Protestors march towards the presidential office during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“I thought this kind of mass protest was only possible in the past. I am proud and touched that we are showing the people’s power,” said Hwang Yoon-sun, a 20-year-old university student. “I will hold up a candle until she steps down.”

Ahead of the main event in the evening, nearly 400,000 protestors flocked to four locations within a kilometer from Cheong Wa Dae, surrounding the presidential office. The marching rally was made possible after a local court ordered police to withdraw a ban that had previously sought to prevent protestors from doing so.

Upon the court order, protestors were able to get closer to the presidential office than past rallies, gathering in front of Cheongwoon-dong community center, just 200 meters from Cheong Wa Dae. 

Protestors are barred from marching to the presidential office by police bus barricades during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)
Protestors are barred from marching to the presidential office by police bus barricades during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Yonhap)

As protestors were blocked from further access by police buses forming a barricade, they confronted police for hours, peacefully, singing and making impromptu speeches from the top of vehicles.

“I am so proud that I am raising my voice against President Park Geun-hye as near as possible to Cheong Wa Dae. I will tirelessly speak alongside others to call for her resignation,” said Kang Geum-sook, 50, who came with her daughter. “We elected Park Geun-hye to represent us, not for her to abuse her power.”

Protesters were careful to prevent violence. When signs of a possible flare-up appeared, protesters chanted, “No violence!” There were no clashes or arrests reported. 

A protestor attaches a flower sticker to a police bus during the anti-Park Guen-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
A protestor attaches a flower sticker to a police bus during the anti-Park Guen-hye rally held in central Seoul, Saturday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

They also attached some 100,000 flower stickers to the police buses parked near the presidential office. The stickers appeared last week, paid for through arts crowdfunding website 7Pictures. The stickers were artist Lee Gang-hun’s idea to resist the police by turning the wall of buses into a “wall of flowers.”

After the rally, some protesters volunteered to remove them. Korean National Police Agency chief Lee Chul-sung said last week he would tolerate the use of flower stickers, citing the title of a book -- “Don’t hit People, Even With a Flower.”

“Many people are joining the rally, but are blocked by police buses. I thought putting flower stickers on the police buses is a beautiful and peaceful way to show our resistance against violence by the government,” said Jang Jong-ho, a 27-year-old office worker. 

As the sun set and people lit candles, the eight-lane boulevard of Sejongno turned into an outdoor concert hall. The protest reached its climax when legendary folk singers Ahn Chi-hwan and Yang Hee-eun took to the stage and sang their signature songs. 

A sea of candlelights in central Seoul during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Yonhap)
A sea of candlelights in central Seoul during the anti-Park Geun-hye rally, Saturday. (Yonhap)

Some were even seen shedding tears while singing along to Yang’s “Evergreen Tree” when the lyrics went “Although we do not have much, we shed tears hand in hand. Although our road is a long way to go and even precipitous, we shall overcome and be victorious.”

At 8 p.m., demonstrators blew out their candles and chanted “Park Geun-hye, resign” in one voice. They relit them a minute later to show they would continue to hold candles until Park leaves her post.

The crowd started to shrink at around 10 p.m. with people heading home. Some of them stayed until the early hours of Sunday, making impromptu speeches and enjoying musical performances.

The first anti-Park rally held in late October was relatively small in scale, drawing about 30,000 people. But the protest has grown bigger as more Koreans have become enraged by the series of allegations implicating Park in the corruption scandal and her refusal to step down.

Prosecutors suspect President Park of letting her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil, who holds no government post, meddle in state affairs and helping her extort donations from local conglomerates for foundations Choi controls. Choi was arrested for fraud and abuse of power this month.

Park made two apologies in the face of public anger, but has refused calls for her resignation. The parliament is taking steps to remove Park from her post, with a vote for impeachment likely to take place as early as Friday.

Park’s approval rating has slipped by 1 percentage point to reach 4 percent, the lowest for any sitting South Korean president, according to a Gallup poll released Friday.

On Saturday, staunch supporters of President Park rallied at Seoul and the southern city of Daegu from 1 p.m. to counter the anti-Park protests. Some 100 gathered at Seoul Station, while in Daegu, Park’s political home turf, about 400 -- mostly senior citizens -- showed up.

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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